White Blood Cell Count and Differential

White Blood Cell Count and Differential

 

Definition

The white blood cell count and differential determine the number of white blood cells and the percentage of each type of white blood cell in a person's blood. These tests are included in general health examinations and help investigate a variety of illnesses, including infection, allergy, and leukemia.

Purpose

The white blood cell count provides a clue to the presence of illness. White cells protect the body by fighting infection and attacking foreign material. When extra white cells are needed, the bone marrow increases production.
There are five types of white cells, each with different functions: neutrophils, lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils, and basophils. The differential reveals if these cells are present in a normal distribution, or if one cell type is increased or decreased. This information helps diagnose specific types of illness.
Conditions or medications that weaken the immune system, such as AIDS or chemotherapy, cause a decrease in white cells. The white cell count detects dangerously low numbers of white cells.
Recovery from illness can be monitored by the white cell count. Counts continuing to rise or fall to abnormal levels indicate a worsening condition; counts returning to normal indicate improvement.

Description

Neutrophils increase in response to bacterial infection. They destroy bacteria by enveloping and digesting them, a process called phagocytosis. When many neutrophils are needed, they are released from the bone marrow as immature cells, called bands or stab cells.
Lymphocytes fight viral infections and some bacterial infections. Certain lymphocytes directly attack invading microorganisms; others produce antibodies that attack and destroy microorganisms and other foreign material. Large lymphocytes, called atypical lymphocytes, are seen during infectious mononucleosis and other illnesses.
Monocytes increase during severe infections, and other conditions. They remove debris and microorganisms by phagocytosis. Eosinophils and basophils increase in response to allergic reactions and parasitic infection.
White cell counts are usually done on an automated instrument. A sample of blood is mixed with a chemical to burst the red blood cells. The remaining white cells are counted by the instrument.
The differential is done by spreading a drop of blood on a microscope slide. The slide is stained with a special stain and examined under a microscope. One-hundred white cells are counted and identified as either neutrophils, bands, lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils or basophils. Any atypical or immature cells also are counted. Cells are identified by the shape and appearance of the nucleus, the color of cytoplasm (the background of the cell), and the presence and color of granules. The percentage of each cell type is reported. At the same time, red cells and platelets are examined for abnormalities in appearance. Some instruments perform an automated differential.
Both the white blood cell count (also called white count or leukocyte count) and the differential (also called diff) are covered by insurance. Results are available the same day.

Preparation

This test requires 7 mL of blood. A healthcare worker ties a tourniquet on the person's upper arm, locates a vein in the inner elbow region, and inserts a needle into that vein. Vacuum action draws the blood through the needle into an attached tube. Collection of the sample takes only a few minutes.

Aftercare

Discomfort or bruising may occur at the puncture site. Pressure to the puncture site until the bleeding stops reduces bruising; warm packs relieve discomfort. The person may feel dizzy or faint.

Normal results

Total white cell count 5,000-10,000 uL. Neutrophils 50-60%. Lymphocytes 20-40%. Monocytes 2-6%. Eosinophils 1-4%. Basophils 0.5-1%. Bands 0-3%.

Abnormal results

The white cell count and differential are interpreted according to a person's clinical condition and medical history. Leukocytosis (a white count increased to over 10,000/uL) is seen in bacterial infections, inflammation, leukemia, trauma, and stress. Leukopenia (a white count decreased to less than 4,000/μL) is seen in some viral infections or severe bacterial infections, and conditions that affect the bone marrow such as dietary deficiencies, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and autoimmune diseases.

Key terms

Band — Immature neutrophil.
Basophil — White blood cell that increases in response to parasitic infections and allergic reactions.
Differential — Blood test that determines the percentage of each type of white blood cell in a person's blood.
Eosinophil — White blood cell that increases in response to parasitic infections and allergic reactions.
Leukocytosis — A white count increased to over 10,000/μL.
Leukopenia — A white count decreased to less than 4,000/μL.
Lymphocyte — White blood cell that fights viral and some bacterial infections by direct attack or the production of antibodies.
Monocyte — White blood cell that increases during a variety of conditions including severe infections. It removes debris and microorganisms by phagocytosis.
Neutrophil — White blood cell that increases in response to bacterial infection. It removes and kills bacteria through phagocytosis.
Phagocytosis — A process by which a white blood cell envelopes and digests debris and microorganisms to remove them from the blood.